Spain boasts Europe’s longest high-speed rail network, second only to China globally, and its trains are exceptional and far-reaching. In one day, you could gawp at Gaudí’s architectural genius in Barcelona, be whisked by rail to Madrid’s museums, and still arrive in Seville for a sunset flamenco show.

Not that it’s all A to B whirlwind rail routes. There are some outstanding scenic train journeys to slow down and enjoy the Spanish pace of life, whether trundling along the northern coast’s narrow-gauge tracks or meandering into the mountains. And with some new low-cost operators now on the scene, exploring Spain by train has never been more affordable.

With over a thousand stations and thousands more daily departures, getting around Spain by train is a straightforward joy rather than a stressful necessity. Seat reservations on most services guarantee uncrowded carriages, Rioja-serving cafe cars provide perfectly wine-paired panoramic views, and electric-powered trains make journeys even more sustainable. What’s not to love? Here’s everything you need to know to plan a train trip in Spain like a pro.

Onboard an AVE service from Madrid, passengers are seen sitting and reading
Onboard a standard-class AVE service from Madrid to Barcelona © Daniel James Clarke

Train services are generally excellent in mainland Spain

You can traverse all four corners of Spain by train, usually on swift, reliable, well-maintained carriages. Few areas aren’t covered by at least a regional service. And where there are coverage gaps, buses will usually take you the final stretch to that pretty medieval village. While strikes can occur, they are rare, and minimum service levels are generally guaranteed. Compensation payments are offered for delays over one hour, which helps keep timetables on track. 

Renfe is Spain’s national railway company, operating everything from non-stop regional capital connections to short-hop commuter services. Iryo and Ouigo provide low-cost competition on the main high-speed intercity lines, with the latter’s double-decker trains being a welcome addition.

While the numerous names for differing service and train types can be confusing, the trains in Spain can generally be divided into three categories:

  • High-speed, mainly long-distance (larga distancia) services link many major cities, mainly via Madrid. These full-service trains can reach 310km/h (193mph) and include Renfe’s AVE (Alta Velocidad Española), its new no-frills Avlo counterpart, and Iryo and Ouigo. There’s an ever-growing network of high-speed routes, including the popular Barcelona–Madrid, Madrid–Seville, and Madrid–Valencia lines.
  • Mid-distance services – although they can sometimes cover long distances and reach speeds of 250km/h (155mph) – make up the majority of other major routes. Renfe services these under names including Media Distancia, Avant and Alvia. Intercity and Regional Exprés services are somewhat slower but only call at major stations. Popular routes include Madrid–Toledo, Granada–Seville, and the Euromed coastal service between Barcelona and Alicante. Nearly all long and mid-distance services use sleek, modern carriages.
  • Slower trains, including Regional, Proximidad, and Cercanías commuter services (Rodalies in Catalonia), complete the network. The older Cercanías AM trains, previously FEVE, mainly operate on the northern coast’s picturesque narrow-gauge tracks.

Nearly all large and medium-sized train stations are staffed and contain shops or cafes. High-speed train stations operate similarly to airports, with luggage security scanners and boarding gates. It’s advisable to arrive 20–30 minutes early, especially as boarding can close five minutes before departure. The bonus is you’ll have time to admire the stations. Some, like Toledo’s Mudejar-style ticket hall and art nouveau Bilbao Concordia, are attractions in their own right.

There are tourist trains and unique rail services too

In addition to standard train services, Spain has an exceptional selection of specialist rail routes known as “tourist trains.” These range from seasonal, short routes, such as the scenic Tren dels Llacs in the Pre-Pyrenees, to indulgent, multiday sojourns like the luxury Transcantábrico train hotel. There are currently no standard domestic night trains.

Passengers onboard the vintage Dels Lacs train lean out of windows to take photos of the lush countryside
The vintage Tren dels Llacs from Lleida to La Pobla de Segur offers plenty of photo opportunities © VW Pics / Universal Images Group / Getty Images)

International and island rail routes are limited

Away from the mainland, the rail situation is starkly different. The Canary Islands have no train services, and only Mallorca in the Balearic Islands has limited rail connections. These consist of three short, modern lines and the vintage Sóller train. 

Traveling to and from France by train is possible on France’s TGVs (from Paris) and Renfe’s International AVE services to Marseille and Lyon. Fares start from €29. You can also cross via Hendaye in the Basque Country or take the slower, scenic sleeper service via the Pyrenees. The Trenhotel (night service) between Madrid and Lisbon has been discontinued, leaving the Tren Celta between Vigo and Porto and the slow route to Lisbon via Badajoz as the only connections with Portugal. Work continues on improving the tracks to accommodate a direct, high-speed link between the two Iberian capitals.

Book ahead to save money and guarantee your seat

Spain’s rail operators all use dynamic pricing for high-speed and long-distance services. Therefore, early booking is advised, especially as seat reservations are mandatory. Advanced Avlo tickets between Madrid and Barcelona start from €7, with Ouigo and Iryo also offering competitive pricing on primary routes. A same-day ticket can sometimes cost more than 10 times more than booking in advance. Prices are less competitive on routes solely operated by Renfe. 

When booking tickets online to or from major cities, use the dropdown city name followed by todos (all) to check for direct and affordable tickets from all stations. Provide the Passport or ID number of the photo document you’ll be traveling with, as tickets are personal. The second surname can be left blank – Spanish people take both their father's and mother’s surnames. Tickets can be printed, collected at self-service machines, or displayed as QR codes on mobile devices. Overall, Ouigo and Iryo's websites are easier to navigate than Renfe's, which can be glitchy. While most people would recommend using a third-party booking service – handy for comparing prices between all operators – direct reservations avoid booking fees.

Even short-distance, popular services with fixed fares (some mid-distance and regional trains) can fill up. I’ve previously struggled to get last-minute weekend tickets on the Madrid to Toledo route. Secure all tickets ahead if your vacation coincides with a major holiday such as Easter (Semana Santa) or Christmas, including around Three Kings Day on January 6.

Iryo and Ouigo release tickets many months ahead. Renfe’s tickets should be available at least 60 days ahead, but this isn’t always true. Check regularly in the months leading up to your departure and sign up for newsletters on the three websites to receive ticket availability and discount updates.

Occasionally, two single fares (ida) can be cheaper than a return (vuelta). Reservations can also be made at station ticket machines (in English) or staffed desks. Larger stations may have separate sales points for particular types of tickets. 

You’ll always be assigned a mandatory seat reservation. However, if you’d prefer to select your own to guarantee a window, you can change it for a nominal fee. Confusingly, Renfe’s website has this step after choosing a payment method. 

Cercanías and Cercanías AM tickets can’t be purchased in advance and should be purchased at the ticket office, self-service machine, or onboard from the conductor when traveling from the tiniest unstaffed stations. This is the only time you’re allowed to board a train without a ticket. 

If you wish to upgrade from basic class (básico) on high-speed routes, you can choose from Elige, Elige Confort and Prêmium on Renfe, or similar options on Iryo. Upgrades can include access to premium station lounges, at-seat food service, and more spacious seats. Solo travelers may want to upgrade to enjoy an individual seat in the 2+1 configured carriages. Ouigo allows these seats as a paid add-on without upgrading.

Two young women with suitcases board a Renfe train in Granada
Renfe offers a Spain Rail Pass that provides discounted fares on a set number of journeys © Getty Images

Discounts and offers: know your benefits and bring ID

Much noise was made about the launch of Spain’s fixed-price travel pass. Yet this system, established to offer discounted fares on repeat return trips, is primarily aimed at locals and commuters.

Renfe does offer a Spain Rail Pass for travelers, covering between four and ten journeys. However, depending on the routes you plan to take, pre-booking discounted, advanced fares can be cheaper. Some region-specific options exist, such as the better value three-day Galica Rail Pass.

Other discounts available on Renfe include:

  • Small group discount when booking four or more travelers together.
  • Seniors discount, up to 40%, for over 60s. However, this requires purchasing a card (La Tarjeta Dorada) in person before making the reservation. Advanced, discounted fares can be better value.
  • Youth Discounts for under 25s with a European Youth Card or suitable International Student Card. A digital card can be purchased online by citizens of most countries.  
  • Babies travel for free, as do children, although the age cap varies between operators.

Considering an Interrail or Eurail pass? Check on any savings first. All high-speed trains in Spain require seat reservations, an additional cost not included in these passes. Avlo, Iryo, and Ouigo are likewise excluded, and these cheaper advanced tickets may be better value than using the pass, though there is less flexibility.

Money-saving tip: high-speed trains include a free local ticket

If you’re traveling on a high-speed AVE or long-distance service operated by Renfe or Iryo, Combinado Cercanías is included. This allows for free use of local Cercanías trains to reach your departure station and again on arrival. Scan the QR code at barriers, or use the PDF code to get a zero-priced ticket at Cercanías’ self-service machines.

Seat reservations ensure most train journeys don’t feel crowded

Traveling by train in Spain is so enjoyable because all long and mid-distance services require a seat reservation. With no congested corridors or jostling vestibules, these trains never feel crowded, even when full. However, some regional and Cercanías services can be packed, particularly around commuter hours and Friday and Sunday evenings. You might want to avoid peak times or, when available, pay for a regional service seat reservation.

Plan around major events and regional holidays during your trip, such as Semana Santa, when ticket demand and crammed suburban trains are common. Trains in Spain operate every day of the year, though some services may finish earlier on public holidays. If you’re traveling on weekends or during holidays, check onward public transport in advance as small, rural stations may have a reduced weekend bus service.

Train can be the fastest, most affordable transport method

Using the train in Spain can be quicker and cheaper than flying. For example, a flight from Madrid to Barcelona takes 1¼ hours compared with 2½ hours by high-speed rail. But once you factor in security checks, out-of-city airport transfers, and runway taxi times, the overall journey length by plane becomes longer.

Driving distances are considerable. The same journey by car will take closer to seven hours. It’s unquestionably worth renting a car if you’re planning a road trip, but generally, long-distance jaunts are best by rail. 

Most train terminuses are connected to city buses and, in larger metropolises, commuter rail or metro systems. Barcelona-El Prat Airport and Madrid–Barajas Airport are on the train network. If you wish to visit smaller towns or villages that are not on the train network, consider other ways to get around Spain.

A waiter at the cafeteria inside one of the trains of operator Iryo during the company's presentation at Atocha station
A cafeteria inside a high-speed Iryo carriage, one of Spain's newest rail providers © Europa Press / Getty Images

Onboard facilities differ between service types

All of Spain’s high-speed train services are spacious, comfortable, clean and well cared for. Carry-on luggage can be placed in overhead racks, while storage areas at either end of the carriage accommodate bulkier luggage. Popular services (especially on Friday and Sunday evenings) can quickly fill, and train staff will usually assist in rearranging suitcases to fit. Cercanías services can be more dated and crowded and often lack enough dedicated luggage space.

If you’re traveling by bicycle, check the luggage policies of Renfe and Iryo. In some instances, bikes must be disassembled or an additional fee paid.

The dining carts on Spain’s trains are typically stand-up, cafe-style rather than seated dining carriages. They’re good for stretching your legs or getting an alternative window view, but dining at your seat table is often more comfortable. A selection of hot meals, snacks and drinks – usually all of decent quality – are available, and certain ticket types offer pre-ordered meals served at your seat. Iryo has particularly impressive dining options.

On some routes, a trolley service may be provided in addition or as an alternative. Mid-distance and Avlo services have vending machines rather than dining carts. Bringing your own food and even alcohol onboard Renfe’s services isn’t a problem.

Complimentary (sometimes patchy) wi-fi is provided on Iryo and Renfe’s high-speed services, alongside entertainment portals accessible on your device. Ouigo charges per connection. Plug sockets (F-type) are available at seats on high-speed and mid-distance trains. Nearly all trains, except commuter services, have toilets.

Plan the perfect train trip with these scenic routes and tips

The most popular train routes for travelers in Spain are the high-speed connections that rocket between Seville, Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. But riding the rails in Spain isn’t only about barrelling between urban sprawl. These are some of our favorite scenic rail routes worth planning into your trip. 

  • Santander to Oviedo: Cross the lush landscapes of Northern Spain on this slow, scenic rail route using Cercanías AM’s narrow-gauge tracks. This six-hour journey provides some of the expensive Transcantábrico Train’s panoramas for a bargain €16.55. There are no seat reservations, which is handy, as you can switch sides to marvel at both the sparkling Bay of Biscay and the mighty Cantabrian Mountains, Spain’s answer to the Dolomites. 
  • Barcelona to A Coruña: Once served by the discontinued sleeper Trenhotel, this is one of Spain’s longest rail routes, taking nearly 14 hours. The 9:05am Alvia departure can be affordable to cross seven of Spain’s autonomous communities. Pack snacks and pay for a window seat (ideally on the right) to see the full scope of Spain’s landscapes, from arid pastures and fertile farmlands to the verdant Galician Massif. Consider hopping off a few stops early in Ourense to use the town’s free-to-access thermal pools the following morning.
  • Granada to Almería: Leaving the magnificent Moorish Alhambra behind, set off across western Andalucía towards the coastal city of Almería. It’s a showstopping three-hour journey traversing the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, snow-capped peaks looming beyond, before cutting through carpets of cork trees. Book a late afternoon departure for ethereal golden light, or take two single tickets to plan a lunch pause at Guadix, best known for its cave houses. 
  • Palma de Mallorca to Sóller: Step onboard the rickety, wooden carriage of Ferrocarril de Sóller, constructed in 1912, for a one-hour-long trundle from Mallorca's capital to the pretty port town of Sóller. En route, you’ll wend through the Tramuntana Mountains, unlit tunnels, and citrus groves close enough to touch. All seats are excellent, but you might want to stand in the open-air platforms between carriages. 
  • Zaragoza to Canfranc: A one-way ticket on this twice-a-day, 2½-hour regional train costs just €16.90, and you’ll get plenty of panoramas for your money, especially after Huesca when the tracks slowly climb up into the ​​Pyrenees. Our resident rail expert, Tom Hall, calls it one of Europe’s best train routes, partly because the landmark Canfranc Station has recently been reborn as a grandiose hotel.
Entrance to the beautiful Canfranc international railway station
The historic Canfranc international railway station is now a luxury hotel © Shutterstock / Nandi Estevez

Station tips when traveling Spain by train

Most large cities have multiple train stations, so always confirm departure points. When traveling to dedicated AVE stations outside major cities, check the station’s distance from the city center and pre-plan your connecting travel. Some stations, such as Antequera’s Santa Ana, can be as far as 15km (9 miles) from the Old Town. 

Spain’s largest stations, such as Madrid Atocha and Barcelona Sants, can be confusing due to split-level and separated boarding areas for different services. Don’t be afraid to ask for help navigating the station. A quick flash of your ticket will soon have you pointed in the right direction.

All major stations have cafes and kiosks where you can pick up food, although preparing a train picnic from a delicatessen might be preferable. Still, a quick tapas in Atocha's Tropical Garden, even if the pond-residing turtles have now been rehomed, is a solid start to any journey. If you’re on a connecting service with time to explore beyond the station, most larger terminals have lockers or left luggage desks (​​consigna).

Many stations are accessible, but there’s room for improvement on older services

Adif, the agency in charge of Spain’s rail infrastructure, provides in-station and boarding assistance for travelers with accessibility needs via the Acerca service, offered at 145 stations.

When booking tickets online, H seats – accessible spaces that can anchor a wheelchair – can be requested on the opening screen, and Acerca assistance can be requested later in the booking process. A minimum of 12–48 hours' notice is stipulated, depending on the operator. However, in larger stations, staffed service centers can usually provide support without pre-booking if you arrive and register at the desk ahead of travel. Check which facilities are available at each station on Adif’s website.

In addition to offering boarding support (many train types require a stair-climber lift, not just a ramp, while others like Avlo have level boarding), Acerca can provide technical aids for hearing and a guided sight service. Contact Adif Acerca for information on induction loop systems or to discuss alternative routes should your planned journey include a non-accessible station without in-person assistance. Tactile paving, step-free access, and elevators are installed at most major stations, and nearly every train has a conductor or staff member onboard who can assist. 

On high-speed, long-distance, and most other services, wheelchair-accessible bathrooms are located in carriages with H seats. Ouigo trains have a call button on adapted seats to provide food and drink service, as the cafe is located on the top deck. Cercanías AM carriages have no H seats but offer a dedicated space for wheelchair users with tie-downs. However, many older, narrow-gauge trains lack accessible bathrooms.

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Cize, France - July 9, 2015: French high speed train TGV operated by SNCF, national rail operator on Cize-Bolozon viaduct bridge in Ain, Rhone-Alpes region in France. This train was developed during the 1970s by GEC-Alsthom and SNCF. A TGV test train set the record for the fastest wheeled train, reaching 574.8 km/h (357.2 mph) on 3 April 2007. Viaduct of Cize-Bolozon in summer season in Bugey along Ain river. This viaduct is a combination rail and vehicular viaduct crossing the Ain gorge. An original span built in the same location in 1875 was destroyed in World War II. Reconstructed as an urgent post-war project due to its position on a main line to Paris, the new viaduct reopened in May 1950. It carries road and rail traffic at different levels.
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